Host Family Survival Guide

At the time of this writing, I have been out of Peace Corps for two months! TWO MONTHS, WOW! (Service actually DOES end! Although at times I felt like I’d be living in Kosovo forever … )

I thought I was done with this blog for good. However, since finishing my service I’ve been asked several times for advice on setting boundaries within the host family. I thought I’d compile my thoughts/suggestions into this list.

Living with a host family is difficult. I imagine this is true to some degree for all Peace Corps volunteers living in all host countries. My advice stems from my experience living with an Albanian family and working in Kosovo. However, I think a lot of what I have to say is universally applicable.

Before joining the Peace Corps, I worked as a drug and alcohol counselor in Chicago. I’m used to settling boundaries as part of my professional life, but even I find it difficult sometimes. I especially find it difficult when I have to establish the same boundaries over and over. Such is life with a host family.

Here are my tips for living with a host family:

1. Decide what household chores you are willing to do and only do those things. Aside from cleaning my bedroom and doing my own laundry, I dried the dishes and sometimes fed the dog. That’s it. (Sorry, but I’m not cleaning the toilet after a man with poor aim uses it!)

Kosovar/Albanian culture is patriarchal. Women are expected to serve men. I would STRONGLY suggest to female volunteers, especially the younger women, to establish that you are not in Kosovo to act as a nuse (the Albanian/Shqip word for “bride.”) Thank God I was never asked to serve tea, because that would have really bothered me. If your host family asks you to serve, I would suggest looking confused and then explaining that you are an American guest. Albanian culture dictates respect for guests so if your family tries to make you do something you don’t want to do, lean on the guest thing.

My host mom wanted me to can speca (pepper) my first year and I kept saying no. She would ask “pse?” (why) and I’d just kind of shrug as a reply. (People can argument against an explanation. They can’t argue against a shrug!) The second year she didn’t ask me to help, haha.

2. My real parents visited Kosovo during my second Christmas. I think it helped ease my host mother’s anxiety about me leaving (and helped ease her grip on me) because she saw that I belong to these other, very nice people.

To volunteers, I’d suggest doing a video chat (or chats) between your host and real family. Establish that you have a very nice family back home and that you are a guest in Kosovo. This is something I wish I had done earlier in my service.

3. I didn’t have this problem, but other volunteers have told me they struggled with host siblings trying to act as their “boss.” In this situation, I’d suggest using humor as a deflection. Turn their comments into a joke. “You’re the boss of me? I’m older than you! That makes me the boss, HAHA!” Give that youngster’s hair a lil’ ruffle! (If your host sibling is older than you are, again, lean on the guest culture.)

4. This may be different in other host countries, but in Kosovo, volunteers pay their living stipends directly to their host families. This is incredibly stressful. My host mother complained that it wasn’t enough money my first few months, even though I was giving the standard amount Peace Corps set. I stuck to my guns, though, and didn’t pay more than I had to.

I also quickly figured out to lie about how much I traveled. I didn’t want to give the impression that I had money. I was also mindful of the fact that travel can be difficult for Kosovars due to the expense and having to obtain visas for just about everywhere.

I traveled pretty frequently during my service but only told my host family about three of my trips (one of those I took with my real parents). The rest of the time, they thought I was in Pristina. They thought I had this mysterious female friend in Pristina who let me crash at her apartment all the time. Hahaha, I was either traveling or renting an Airbnb with other volunteers. 😉

5. My host family was always respectful of my personal belongings and my physical safety. However, I know of instances where other volunteers had host families that stole from them. I also know of instances where volunteers were being sexually harassed in their own homes. I heard mixed reviews on how quickly and effectively Peace Corps staff responded to these situations and again, I can’t speak to this from my own experience. However, I will say that no volunteer should ever be expected to stay at a site where their safety is threatened. If one of these things happens to you, report it immediately!

6. Kosovo gets very cold in the winter. My host family had central heat (and I’ve said this previously — central heat is a rare luxury in Kosovo). My family only turned the heat on for a few hours in the evening, though. So what did I do? I went to Pristina and spent 10 Euro on a space heater. It fit nicely into my backpack and I was able to sneak it into my bedroom. 🙂

I’d hear my friends complain about the cold and I’d just kind of roll my eyes to myself. Use common sense. If you’re cold, buy a heater. Your host family signed a housing contract that states they will provide you with a heated bedroom.

If your host family says the amount they pay for electricity has increased, ask them for a copy of the bill to show your program manager.

7. Best advice ever, for all life situations: Just do you, bo. Establish your boundaries, establish your routine, don’t ask permission and just be yourself. A criticism I have of Peace Corps (and I have several, haha) is that they really push the volunteer to integrate into the host culture without enough emphasis on the cultural exchange. Yes, the volunteer is a guest and should do their best to respect the host culture. However, too much of this pressure is placed solely on the volunteer. My feeling was always, “Hey, you guys wanted an American living in your village and teaching at your school, SO GET READY TO DEAL WITH AN AMERICAN.” (Yes, I do things differently. I am from a completely different culture and country!) Volunteers shouldn’t be expected to compromise on everything.

Last, don’t feel guilty if you don’t love living with a host family. Here’s a secret: most of us don’t (or didn’t)!

Welcome!

Hello! My name is April Gardner. I am a writer and social worker who served in the United States Peace Corps in Kosovo from June 2016 – July 2018. Welcome to my blog.

I have lots of useful information here, whether you are joining Peace Corps Kosovo, traveling to Kosovo, or just want to learn more about the Balkans. Below is a list of suggested posts to help you get started.

About Kosovo

Facts About Kosovo

Traveling in Kosovo

Pre-Service Training (PST) for Peace Corps

Guest Bloggers

Challenges While Serving in Peace Corps Kosovo

Teaching Resources

Albanian Language (Shqip)

Traveling in the Balkans

I’ve written many other posts so be sure to check the blog archives or use the search function if you are looking for something specific!

Final Q & A

Hello, everyone! I COS next week so this will be my very last post on this blog. (COS = “close of service”). I cannot believe two years have gone by and I am SO excited to go HOME!

I reached out to some friends to ask me some questions for my final post. Here are their questions and my responses.

From Patrick:

1. What is the thing you missed most about not living in the U.S.?

Aside from the obvious stuff (people, food, my cat), the thing I missed most about not living in the U.S. was clean water. Early on, Peace Corps gave me a boiling water filter to use for my time in Kosovo. Here’s what the bottom of the filter looks like after cleaning my tap water:

water filter

Several women I know have had problems with their hair falling out. I’ve thankfully not had that problem, but my hair is breaking off, gunky to the touch, and discolored (I’ve been dyeing it with box dye, which I hate). I am looking forward to getting my hair back into healthy shape once I’m in the U.S.!

From Dana: 

2. What was the most challenging part of your service?

All of it was challenging. I’d say the most challenging was having less autonomy over my life than I am used to, and living with a host family.

3. What was surprisingly easier than you had anticipated?

 

Working with my counterparts was surprisingly easy. Other volunteers had varying experiences, of course, but my counterparts were very welcoming, supportive, and open to trying new ideas in the classroom. The situation had the potential to be extremely awkward — walking into someone else’s classroom and presenting new teaching ideas and ways of doing things. I always felt welcomed, though, not just by my counterparts, but by my school directors and the other teachers, too. It probably helped that I replaced another volunteer, so my community was already familiar with Peace Corps.

4. What was surprisingly more difficult than you had anticipated?

Kosovo is Peace Corps’ second-newest host country (the newest being Mynmar), and beforehand I hadn’t given much thought to what it would be like to serve in a program that is still being established. There were more administrative bumps than I expected. If I were to do Peace Corps again, the length of the program is something I would take into greater consideration.

5. Any food you’ll miss?

I’ll miss my four favorite restaurants in Pristina: Gresa and Ponte Vecchio (pasta), Babaganough (vegetarian), and Le Sandwich. I’ll also miss paying like 3 Euro for a really good meal.

6. What is the most unique thing about Kosovo?

Wow, good question. Hmm … I would say the most interesting thing is the mix of east and west, and old and new traditions. In the United States there are big variances in religion and traditions and education and values, but because it’s such a large and diverse country it is kind of expected. Kosovo is much smaller and so I think the differences between city and village life are more pronounced. For example, you see people wearing traditional clothing like plis (white, conical hats that men wear) and women in hijabs. But then you also see men and women dressed like they are starring in American music videos.

Buildings are surprisingly large and modern, because a lot were destroyed in the war and had to be re-built.

Kosovo is also very tolerant in terms of religion, much more so than the United States, in my opinion. I had the unique experience of living in a Catholic village in what is a predominately Islamic country. I had both Catholic and Muslim colleagues at my school.

But having said that, Kosovo is still very divided in terms of ethnicity. Tensions between Albanians and Serbians continue to this day. I also think people here identify much more strongly with their ethnicity (being Albanian or Serbian, for example) than with their nationality (being Kosovar).

From Matthew:

7. What food/drink surprised you the most; did you like the most, did you like the least?

I found all of the food surprising, because I had never encountered Balkan food in the United States. I was “meh” about the food because I did not like how it is prepared (LOTS of oil) and it tends to be unbalanced in terms of nutrition. Furthermore, meals rely heavily on peppers, cucumbers, and tomatoes. I always wished for spinach and broccoli!

I don’t like pork but I live with a Catholic family and we eat pork often. When I get home, I am really looking forward to not having to eat pork.

8. Is there anything you encountered that we should all be cooking at home?

If you are interested in cooking Balkan food, I would recommend starting with fasule, which is a bean stew. Fasule is my favorite local dish. It is bland but can be dressed up any way you like with spices and other vegetables. It can also be vegan if you don’t cook it with lard.

Here is a picture of fasule and a link to a recipe.
Fasule
Photo Credit: Albania Adventure

From Pauline:

9. What was the most rewarding / high point of your service? 

In terms of projects, the high point of my experience was probably the week I volunteered with the Anibar Animation Festival in Peja. I got to meet interesting people from all over the world, see good films, spend time with friends, and spend time in my favorite city in Kosovo.

As far as the most rewarding part of my service, I would say being submerged in another culture for so long. It is a unique experience and while there are things about Kosovar culture I definitely dislike, I appreciate knowing something about a country most Americans are totally unfamiliar with.

10. What was the worst / low point of your service? 

I had two low points. The first one was my first winter in Kosovo. It was a cold, snowy winter and I had a series of arguments with my host family about various things. I was really depressed from January until my spring break trip to Rome in April.

My second lowest point was that autumn (2017, my second school year). Mid-service is typically a low point for volunteers. I found the prospect of another school year and another year living in Kosovo to be daunting.

From Jocelyn:

11. What would you consider to be your most memorable moment with your students (the most impactful) and why?

My two favorite groups of student were my fourth grade class in my village and my students at the orphanage. Both groups were really enthusiastic and eager to learn. I don’t think there was any one project I thought was particularly impactful. However, I appreciated being able to work with at the orphanage because those students are among a minority (Ashkali) community that I don’t think typically get a lot of services.

(Ashkali are a group who share language and culture with the Albanians but whose origins are in the Middle East, not the Balkans.)

From Roman:

12. What currency do you get paid in?

Kosovo is on the Euro and my monthly living stipend is paid in Euro. I get paid 350 Euro per month, 180 of which goes to my host family. The remaining 170 Euro is mine to spend how I like.

I also accrue money for every month I am in Peace Corps, which will be given to me once I complete my service. That will be paid in U.S. dollars.

 

Thanks, everyone, for your questions! 

FYI, I visited 12 countries while I was serving in the Peace Corps (including Kosovo) and read 105 books. 🙂

 

What I’ve Been Up To (May-June 2018)

In May, I attended my Peace Corps Close-of-Service conference. The U.S. Ambassador to Kosovo, Greg Delawie, attended on our last day. I had met him twice before. At lunch I sat at his table and was able to speak with him for longer than I had before. It was an honor.

Ambassador COS photo
The ambassador is seated in the front row, wearing a blue tie.

Since I decided to stop blogging regularly around the time of the conference, I didn’t take many photos. It was an emotional week and I wanted to sit back and process my feelings. However, I did take this photo and it is one of my favorites:

Processed with MOLDIV
Sierra and Chester

As I mentioned in this post, my friend Ingrid visited from Amsterdam at the end of May/beginning of June.

rugova 1
Stephanee, Todd, April, Ingrid
rugova 2
Visiting Rugova
Ingrid visit
Group dinner with Ingrid
Prizren Sierra Ingrid Chelsea April
Visiting Prizren

My friend Val and I presented another writing workshop at KosovaLive.

April KosovaLive 2
Photo courtesy of KosovaLive

Sierra came to my site for a sleepover. I made her watch my favorite bad movie, Boxing Helena.

april sierra ztown
April and Sierra

Chester came to my site the next day and the three of us had lunch.

chester sierra april astro
Famous chicken restaurant!

I attended a Faces of Kosovo exhibit at the National Library.

faces of kosovo
Faces of Kosovo exhibit
national library
April at the National Library

I visited Mitrovice for the first time. Mitrovice is one of Kosovo’s largest cities, but I had never been there. Mitrovice is divided, Albanians in the south and Serbians in the north. The bridge behind us in this photo famously links the two halves of the city:

Mitrovice TedSylvie
Mitrovice bridge

I made a few “goodbye” gifts:

I attended my director’s retirement dinner, said goodbye to my students, and took my counterparts out for a “thank you” lunch.

director dinner
April, director, counterpart
school goodbye
Grades 1-5. Yep, it’s a tiny school!
A and D
Saying goodbye to students
chicken dinner
Lunch with my counterparts

In other news, I turned 37. Spending another milestone far away from home was rough. I really miss all of you at home and can’t wait to see you! xoxo

Saying Goodbye to my PST Host Family

In Peace Corps, all volunteers go through a three-month, in-country pre-service training (known as “PST”). During this time, each volunteer lives with a temporary host family. I went to visit my PST host family this past Friday to say goodbye.

I’ve done a bad job of keeping in touch with them. They live on the other side of the country from where I am now. Kosovo is a small country and the distance wouldn’t matter so much if I had access to a car, but I don’t, and so it takes me 4 hours and 3 buses to get to my former home.

It was nice to sleep in my old room one last time and to see my host parents. Unfortunately, my host brothers weren’t there. They are all working in Pristina (Kosovo’s capital city).

balcony
View from the balcony

My host mother and I went on a little hike shortly after I arrived. I miss my old village because it is so much more beautiful than where I live now. My host mom told me she takes a walk up the hill every day because she loves nature.

host mom
Host mom and me
hill 3
.
hill 7
.
hill 2
.

hill 4

I learned something sad during my trip. Remember the kitten, who I met on my birthday two years ago?

cheap-trick-t-shirt-tiger-kitten

I saw her last March and she had grown into a beautiful cat.

kitten-then-and-now

Unfortunately, she died. I texted my host brother about it and he said both cats got sick and only one survived. He doesn’t know what happened. 😦

The gray-and-white cat (who I think of as “Mace,” which is the Albanian word for “cat”) is thankfully still alive and well. She is a sweet cat. Still, I had a real soft spot for the tabby. Rest in peace, little one.

tabby-cat-blue-rug-grass
.
naughty kitty
Mace being bad and trying to get on the table during my last visit …

There have been times when my Peace Corps service has felt like it dragged on, but while I was visiting my old house, I could not believe two years have passed since I lived there.

Read more about my experiences (and my friend’s experiences) during pre-service training (PST):

I am considering starting a monthly (?) newsletter once I complete my service to keep everyone updated on my first few months post-Peace Corps service. Due to anti-spam laws, I actually need you to opt in if you are interested. Please click here to sign up.

I Visited a Mosque

One thing I wanted to do while living in Kosovo was to visit a mosque. Though Kosovo is a predominately Islamic country, I live in a Catholic village and we don’t have a mosque, so I hadn’t been to one. I was a bit nervous because I didn’t know the rules for someone who 1) is a woman and 2) isn’t Muslim. I asked a local and he suggested covering my head as a sign of respect and taking care not to visit during the daily call to prayer times. Otherwise, he said visiting should be fine.

I’d seen this mosque in Pristina (pictures below) from the outside and decided that it was the one I’d visit. I covered my head with my scarf and took off my shoes (though I think that has more to do with culture and less to do with religion) before I went inside.

mosque 1.JPG
Outside view
mosque ceiling
Entrance ceiling
mosque light
Chandelier
mosque 2
My friend said only old mosques have corners like these and that they are probably used for prayer because the walls are thick.

It was dark inside the mosque and when I got home, I discovered most of my pictures were too dark or blurry to post. 😦

Here is a previous picture I had posted of the outside of a mosque and it is one of my favorite photos I’ve taken in Kosovo.

Q & A About Serving in the Peace Corps in Kosovo

Hello! A potential new volunteer recently emailed me some questions about serving in Peace Corps Kosovo, so I thought I would use them to create a blog post. At the end, I also included a question that a friend recently asked me.

1) How safe do you feel in Kosovo? Fairly safe. Have you ever felt threatened or in danger? The two worst things that have happened to me are: 1) A student threw a rock at me as I was crossing the school yard, and it hit me on the back of my shoulder. Three students were suspended for a week as a result, and I no longer teach their classes. 2) I was taking a walk one morning, rounded a bend in the road, and came upon a large, angry stray dog. It approached me several times and barked at me, but it eventually moved on. I would say I find environmental concerns (stray dogs, lack of seat belts in cars, lack of adequate nutrition and exercise, and exposure to second-hand smoke and air pollution) more worrisome than my experiences with people here. I mostly feel safe around Kosovar people. Do you think a self defense class would be a good idea? I think taking a self defense class is always a good idea, and is something every woman should do.

2) How hot and cold does it really get there? I am from the Midwest, and weather in Kosovo is like the weather in the Midwest. It gets very hot in the summer and very cold in the winter. A major factor here is that central heat and central air conditioning are rare to nonexistent. Do I need to bring a long down jacket for winter? Yes, absolutely! Are the summers too hot for jeans and a T-shirt? I don’t wear jeans in the summer because it is too hot. I recommend wearing long skirts, linen pants, capri pants, etc. Some people wear shorts, but I would recommend dressing more conservatively here than you might in the United States.

3) Have you gotten placed next to any other Peace Corps volunteers? My first year here, I had two site mates. They didn’t live in my village but they were only a ten-minute drive away. They are both gone now. This year, I am alone at my site. The next-closest volunteer is probably an hour away from me by bus. However, I see other volunteers all the time in Pristina. Kosovo is small so I wanted to know if it is pretty standard to work at a school with other Peace Corps volunteers. Volunteers are never placed at the same school, even if they live in the same village.

4) Do you have daily access to fruits or vegetables? Mostly (kinda?) yes. My host family eats peppers almost daily. Sometimes, we also have cabbage or pickled vegetables. There is not much variety, however, in vegetables or in meals in general. If you are curious to know what I eat, you can read my 5-Day Food DiaryHow much of a say do you have in your diet? Almost none. If I say that I would prefer to eat less of something (like sugar or bread), will the family take extreme offense to that? No, not at all, at least in my experience. I think it is important to be honest with your host family about what you will or will not eat. For example, I hate onion and my host family knows this. If my host mother makes something with onion in it, she will make me a smaller, separate portion with no onion.  Can I just buy my own food and cook my own meals? You will negotiate the meal situation with your host family and yes, some volunteers do cook their own meals.

5) How often is it considered appropriate to shower in Kosovo before it becomes rude (as in your host family gets irritated with you for using up amenities)? I shower and wash my hair every day. As far as toiletries go, I buy my own soap, shampoo, toothpaste, etc. Having good hygiene has always been important to me — it’s just a part of who I am. I compromise on plenty of stuff as a volunteer, but I am not willing to compromise on maintaining good hygiene.

I think volunteers (especially in the beginning of service) are really nervous about being seen as “weird” or doing something offensive, but remember, you will be a foreigner in Kosovo. You are bound to do things that are “weird” because you come from a different country with a different culture. You are not going to perfectly blend in. As long as you aren’t being deliberately disrespectful or offensive, do what makes you happy. Is [showering] every other day excessive? I don’t think so.

6) What has been the hardest cultural aspect for you to adjust to in Kosovo? All of it has been a huge adjustment. As far as the hardest thing, I would say that because Kosovo is a patriarchal society, experiencing the way women are thought of and treated has really been hard. I also hate all the smoking!

7) My friend Dana (hi, Dana!) recently asked me how many Americans are on staff here in Kosovo. All Peace Corps posts (meaning, host countries) have to have three Americans on staff: the Country Director, the Director of Programming and Training, and the Director of Management and Operations. All other staff members (administrative assistants, medical staff, IT director, accounts payable/receivable, program managers, small grants manager, supply chain manager, and drivers) are from Kosovo.

As always, I hope my answers are helpful! Thank you for reading.